By David Jordan Jr
Today the world lost one of the pillars of women’s basketball with the passing of Nikki McCray-Penson. McCray-Penson died at the age of 51.
Nikki McCray-Penson (then Nikki McCray) emerged in the game of basketball as an standout player at Collierville High School in Collierville, Tennessee. As a Lady Dragon, McCray set numerous state records in route to being named a Parade Magazine All-American and a Converse All-American her senior year. McCray was also named the Class AAA Miss Basketball her senior season. During her time playing at Collierville High School she was an All-State selection three times and was named the Commercial Appeal’s Best Of The Preps Player Of The Year Twice.
She would continue her career at the University of Tennessee where she would play for legendary coach Pat Summit. As a Vol she was named an All-American twice and was also named the SEC Player Of The Year twice as she led the Vols to the 1995 NCAA Final Four, being named to the 1995 Final Four All Tournament Team.
The completion of her college career laid the foundation for a storied international and professional career. McCray-Penson would play an instrumental role in the growth of women’s basketball in the United States as a member of the 1996 USA Women’s Olympic Basketball Team.
Winning gold in the Olympics (she would also win gold in the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia) she would continue her winning ways in the now-defunct ABL league leading the Columbus Quest to the Championship and being named league MVP. The emergence of the WNBA in 1997 created an avenue for women’s basketball players to play at the highest level in the United States without having to leave the country to continue their basketball career. She would play eight seasons in the WNBA for the Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Stars and Chicago Sky. Her WNBA career would see her named to three all-star teams.
After retiring from the WNBA, she began her career coaching women’s basketball as she would coach at the University of South Carolina, Western Kentucky, Old Dominion, Mississippi State and Rutger University. She would be named the C-USA Coach Of The Year in 2020 as she led Old Dominion to a 24-6 record. Nikki was inducted in to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
In 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she fought the disease with the same tenacity she exhibited on the court as a coach and a player. Fighting till the end, McCray-Penson provided the example for little girls and women world wide of how to fight to reach your goals and accomplish them at the highest level. Her impact upon the game of women’s basketball can be seen everyday as she was one of many women that had careers that helped shaped the modern day landscape for women’s basketball globally.
Nikki is survived by her husband Thomas Penson, and her son, Thomas Nikson Penson.